As part of the five-year Disney California Adventure expansion that wrapped up in June 2012, the main entrance to the second park at the Disneyland Resort got a makeover. In place of the generic turnstiles the once lined the plaza, guests now enter through gates designed to look like the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, a stylish Los Angeles landmark that is no longer standing. If the entry area looks familiar to park fans (beyond the Pan-Pacific connection), that's because the main gate at Disney's Hollywood Studios, part of Florida's Disney World, shares the same architectural reference.
(Buena Vista) Street Cred
Before the expansion of Disney California Adventure and its grand reopening in June 2012, the park made an underwhelming first impression. The mishmash of California icons that used to greet visitors beyond the entry plaza didn't do much to engage them or compel them to stick around and explore the area. In contrast, the richly detailed and lavishly themed Buena Vista Street that now leads into the park does a wonderful job setting the tone and introducing a compelling story.
"One of the things I loved so much about Disneyland as a kid," said John Lasseter, principal creative advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering (and Pixar chief), "was the immersive entertainment that Walt Disney created. You're transported to another place and time." Deeming the original Disney California Adventure not up to Disneyland-level snuff, Lasseter was among the visionaries who worked on the improved 2.0 version.
The place guests now encounter is Los Angeles, and the time is the Art Deco- and Jazz-Age-infused 1920s and 1930s. Whereas Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland represents the idealized small American town of Walt Disney's youth, Buena Vista Street recalls the city where he came to start his career and pursue his oversized dreams.
In reference to the new front of the park, Bob Weis, executive vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering and one of the creative leaders of the park's expansion, said, "If you get Act One right, everything else follows." He added that the entry street is designed to make an emotional connection with guests.
It's a Gas, Gas, Gas - Oswald's
As an homage to California car culture and as a reference to one of Walt Disney's first animated characters, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a period gas station called Oswald's sits at the head of Buena Vista Street. Instead of automotive needs, the shop sells items that park guests might want for their visits such as hats, water bottles, and sunscreen.
As with the entry plaza, Oswald's takes its cue from Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida, which also has a shop masquerading as a vintage gas station at the front of its park. Interestingly, it is one of two "gas stations" in Disney California Adventure. The other one, located in Cars Land is actually a restaurant, Flo's V8 Cafe.
Besides Oswald's, Buena Vista Street includes a number of allusions to Walt Disney and his rich history. For example, one of the second-floor windows has a sign for an optometry practice called "Eye Works." This is a reference to Ub Iwerks, a gifted artist who was one of Disney's first collaborators and the animator of the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy. The shop, Julius Katz & Sons, is derived from Julius the Cat, an animated character that appeared in Disney's series of Alice Comedies.
All Aboard - The Red Car Trolley
Adding to the pleasant bustle guests encounter on Buena Vista Street is the Red Car Trolley. Harking back to the Pacific Electric Railway in Los Angeles, the streetcars stop near the main gate of the park at Buena Vista Plaza. From there, they travel down the street, go around Carthay Circle, wind down Hollywood Boulevard, and end at Hollywood Tower Hotel, better known as the Tower of Terror.
The trolleys, with their crisp-suited conductors, are charming and evocative and help tie together areas of the park. The electrical cables strung above the tracks, known as catenary lines, are for show only; each car has its own onboard rechargeable battery. The trolleys are remarkably quiet and often require some spirited bell-ringing and whistle-blowing to warn pedestrians in their path.
Storied Stores - The Shops Along Buena Vista Street
Buena Vista Street is not long and seems to end too soon. It is, however, loaded with details to explore in its storefront windows, second-story signs, and other locations. Although the shops have different facades and maintain different identities, they have open walls which allow visitors to pass through from one to the next. They are also surprisingly spacious.
The largest store is Elias & Company, which is a lovely reproduction of the department stores that used to grace downtown areas (before the advent of suburban shopping malls). Elias is the name of Walt Disney's father as well as his middle name.
Other shops include the Dumbo-themed toy store, Big Top Toys, a note-perfect vintage fruit stand, Mortimer's Market (Mortimer was the name Disney gave to his cartoon mouse before his wife suggested he change it to Mickey), and the candy shop, Trolley Treats. Among the delectable concoctions offered in the latter are Mickey-shaped chocolate chip cookie with chocolate-covered ears.
What's in Store? Inside a Shop Along Buena Vista Street.
While the stores generally sell the usual theme park retail suspects, including hats, T-shirts, and imprinted items, the shops themselves are finely detailed, richly appointed, and reflective of the era they portray. Note the gorgeous Art Deco flourishes, wrought iron railing, and handsome window displays in Elias & Company, for instance.
S'no Ordinary Building - The Carthay Circle Theater
At the end of Buena Vista Street is Carthay Circle and its namesake theater. The stylized building is based on the actual Carthay Circle, an elegant theater that was the world premiere site of Disney's first feature-length animated film, 1937's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." The original structure no longer exists, but it also served as the inspiration for a shop building in Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World.
As a focal point for the park, the building is not all that grand-scale (although it is taller, if narrower than Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland). When Disney announced its plans to construct the iconic theater, we expected that it would include a presentation or attraction, perhaps one that featured Walt Disney or the early years of his studio. Instead, the building houses a lounge and an upscale restaurant.
Not Popcorn or Milk Duds - The Carthay Circle Restaurant
It may look like a theater from the outside, but the second floor of the Carthay Circle houses an elegant and upscale restaurant. The central room has dark wood, a chandelier with a skylight and colorful inlaid print, and tables with upholstered banquette seats. A series of smaller rooms are arranged around the main dining space and offer relatively hushed settings for quiet meals and respites from the park tumult.
While the old-school atmosphere harkens to the early 20th century, the menu is decidedly contemporary and focuses on lighter, regional fare. Seasonal produce, locally sourced fish, and Asian dishes are all featured on the menu. Wines, with an emphasis on California varieties, are also a prominent part of the experience. Many of the wines are available by the glass. How good is the eatery? Soon after it opened, a panel of travel experts voted Carthay Circle Disneyland's best table-service restaurant.
As an added bonus, guests who order an entree along with either an appetizer or a dessert receive reserved viewing for World of Color.
Reservations are strongly advised. Call 714-781-DINE.
Drink In the Atmosphere- The Carthay Circle Theater Lounge
The first floor of the theater features a small lounge that offers cocktails, specialty drinks, local beers, and wine along with small plates to share. The standout dish is the Lobster Pad Thai Imperial Roll, which had just the right blend of flavors, including cilantro, cashew dipping sauce, and notes of sugar to balance the heat.
While pricey, the food was quite good, and the atmosphere is wonderful. The lobby area, where both diners waiting to be seated in the upstairs restaurant and lounge guests can mingle, offers displays of artifacts from Disney's archives. No reservations are required for the lounge.
It All Started with a Mouse - Storytellers statue in Carthay Circle
Reinforcing the theme of Disney California Adventure (with an emphasis on the Disney), a lovely statue of a young Walt Disney and his cartoon alter ego, Mickey Mouse, stands in front of the Carthay Circle Theater. The spot is a picture-taking magnet and attracts a crowd, but it's worth waiting to get a good view (and a photo if you wish) of the charming duo.
1923 is engraved onto an accompanying plaque, which signifies the year that Walt Disney came to California and established his studio. It also marks the beginning of the era that the front of the park is supposed to represent. Entering the main gate, guests "walk down the street in Walt's shoes and feel what he may have felt when he first arrived in Los Angeles," said Lisa Girolami, director and senior show producer for Walt Disney Imagineering. At the end of the street, she noted that guests encounter the statue to bring the story home.
The Scoop on Sponsors - Carthay Circle Shops
The shops at the end of Buena Vista Street can also be accessed via Carthay Circle. Among the locations inside the Elysian Arcade is Clarabelle's Ice Cream. The shop sign is lovely and fitting for the era. The name harks back to Clarabelle the Cow, a character that appeared in Disney's early Mickey Mouse shorts.
A small logo under the sign, however (and a bigger one inside the shop) indicates that the ice cream is Dreyer's brand. We understand the need for corporate sponsors and product suppliers, but Disney has done such a bang-up job with the 1920s-era theme that it is disconcerting to have the modern-day logo interrupt the flow. Nitpicky? Perhaps, but the contrast is quite jarring.
A Caramel Macchiato Espresso - in the 1920s? Starbucks at Carthay Circle
Disney has made much about the fact that it now includes a Starbucks inside one of its parks. Coffee and tea drinks from the ubiquitous chain are available inside the Fiddler, Fifer & Practical Cafe, a quick-service restaurant at Carthay Circle. The name refers to the names of the Three Little Pigs that appeared in one of Disney's early cartoons.
Again, it irks me that Disney has disrupted its otherwise pristine theme with an anachronistic reference. Granted, the shop does not look like a Starbucks, but the name outside the cafe is intrusive, and the menu board inside is even more glaring. And really, does the world need another place to buy pretentious, overpriced coffee? Aren't we supposed to escape the mundane present once we enter a theme park?
The cafe includes non-Starbucks sandwiches and soups. It seems to me that if Disney wanted to feature caffeinated products, it could have fashioned a period coffee shop with vintage urns and perhaps paired it with a bakery.
Have You Heard the News? - The Red Car News Boys Perform
A few times a day, one of the Red Car Trolleys pulls up Hollywood Boulevard with a train full of Newsies-style singing newsboys. The trolley stops at Carthay Circle, and the performers take to the streets. It's a typical over-caffeinated, saccharine-sweet Disney show.
The show includes period songs (and some from the wrong period, such as the circa-1950s "Make 'Em Laugh"). About halfway through the performance, Mickey Mouse -- the kind with the moving eyes and mouth -- joins the group to sing about chasing his Hollywood dreams.
Jazz-Age Jazz - The Five & Dime perform
Pulling up in a lovely 1920s automobile, the members of the Five & Dime take their instruments onto the street at Carthay Circle and perform a few numbers. The band features a female singer who belts out the tunes. The music is quite good and, unlike the Red Car News Boys, the singing seems genuinely live.